Board fights ferry tolls

Published 12:23 am Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Beaufort County Board of Commissioners on Monday joined the growing chorus of eastern North Carolina residents and leaders who oppose tolls scheduled to take effect on two area ferries come April.

County leaders unanimously approved a resolution opposing the tolls mandated by the Republican-led state Legislature, but one GOP member of the board said he understood the need for cost-cutting measures statewide.

“This is my area. This is my county, so I’m going to vote for this resolution,” said Commissioner Stan Deatherage. But, he said, “there’s going to be a lot of cost-cutting measures coming down” from the N.C. General Assembly as lawmakers work to control spending.

In presenting a resolution to the board, Commissioner Robert Cayton said the plan to charge tolls on the river ferries “undermines the working people of Beaufort County.”

The resolution approved by the commissioners reads in part as follows: “(W)hereas, a ferry is an extension of the highway system and such proposed increases in existing ferry tolls and the adding of ferry tolls where there is none at present will constitute an unfair taxation burden upon residents of areas served by ferry service;

Now, therefore, be it resolved by the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners that it strongly opposes any increase in existing ferry tolls and the adding of ferry tolls where there is none at present.”

The Southern Albemarle Association approved a similar resolution in January.

Beginning April 1, the state Department of Transportation will collect tolls for the first time on ferries that cross the Neuse and Pamlico rivers — which together carry about 534,841 people annually, many of whom use the ferries to commute to work at PotashCorp Aurora and Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station.

DOT  has considered a range of pricing options in response to lawmakers’ call for the department to generate $5 million in annual revenue from ferry tolls.

Within that range is the possibility that average riders on the Aurora-Bayview ferry could see charges of $10 to $12 per trip — or up to $480 per month for people who ride the local ferry every workday, as some do.

These riders could save money by purchasing commuter passes, but speakers at a recent public meeting on the issue in Beaufort County also saw that choice as cost-prohibitive.

DOT is expected to announce new toll rates by the end of the month.

The Pamlico and Neuse river ferries are funded primarily by gasoline taxes that also helped build the U.S. Highway 17 Bypass across the Tar River west of Washington.

Commissioner Hood Richardson told the board that if county leaders had insisted several years ago that the bridge be built east of Washington, as he had wanted, that Beaufort County’s workers would not be facing ferry tolls today.

“We would not be up here crying and wringing our hands,” if county leaders had supported an eastern route for the bridge in 2001, he said.

In a related matter, the commissioners unanimously approved a DOT plan to pave or resurface secondary roads in four areas of the county.

The projects, which total more than $1.07 million, including contingency and county survey and utilities costs, are as follows:

  • Strengthening State Road 1633, Pike Road, from N.C. Highway 99 to State Road 1626, at a cost of $570,000;
  • Grading, draining and paving State Road 1923, West Road, from N.C. Highway 306 for four-tenths of a mile, at a cost of $160,000;
  • Grading, draining and paving State Road 1189, Camp Bonner Road, for four-tenths of a mile, at a cost of $140,000;
  • Patching and resurfacing roads in the Ridgewood subdivision east of Washington, at a cost of $120,000.

And unlike the plan to impose tolls on riders of the state’s ferries, the commissioners praised DOT for its efforts to improve these roads.

“The state has done exactly what they said they were going to do,” Richardson said. “You’ve done a good job of paving roads in Beaufort County.”

News Editor Jonathan Clayborne contributed to this report.